Hello world!

Well! Microsoft has given up on Spaces and moved us all to WordPress.com. The best thing about the move is that they’re moving all the content.

Keep reading!

UPDATE: I can create and edit posts from my iPad.

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Gee whiz! Library visits are up

The American Library Association has started a new web site for the "public" called I Love Libraries. I believe the site is still under development, so for the moment it would be unfair to criticize it.  For example, the site doesn’t appear to have an RSS feed.  But something else caught my attention.

A long, long time ago, when I was quite young, I read a great book called How to Lie With Statistics, by Darrell Huff.   One of the enduring things I’ve retained from the book is the idea of a "gee whiz graph".  I don’t have to bother generating an example, since the ALA has provided a couple of them on this page (in the "Conclusions" section at the bottom).

The basic idea is that if you have a series of numbers that go from, say, 152 to 165, you can show them on a graph which has a scale from 0 to 200, and you’ll see that the values change a bit, but not dramatically.  On the other hand, if you scale the graph from 150 to 170, the values will visually appear to leap from 2 to 15, an apparent dramatic increase of 650%.  And that’s just what the ALA has done with the number of annual visits to libraries.  Library visits increased from 1.24 billion in 2002 to 1.38 billion in 2006.  This turns out to be a rate of increase of a smidgen more than 2.7% per year.  In order to make this increase look more dramatic, the ALA has scaled the graph from 1.15 billion, giving an apparent increase from 0.09 (1.24 -1.15) in 2002 to 0.023 (1.38 -1.15) in 2006, a visual increase of more than 26% a year, apparently more than doubling in four years.  What makes this completely inexcusable is that the graph is small and blurry, so it’s quite hard to see what’s really going on.

The other graph, showing the percent of adults with library cards, is even worse.  The scale is 60% – 63% – 65% – 68% – 70%, evenly-spaced!

The ALA has clearly demonstrated two ideas that are important to its mission:  you can learn a lot from a book, even one that’s 55 years old, and you shouldn’t take everything on the Internet at face value.

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DRM-ridden proprietary databases

Like many other libraries, the local library subscribes to proprietary information services, which are confusingly referred to as "databases". These services are protected by DRM — digital rights management.  DRM hurts normal users without affecting pirates.  It’s just a bad idea.  But the companies that provide DRM-protected information services to libraries have brought bad to a whole new level.

I wanted to get an online copy of Martha Yee’s article in the April issue of Library Resources & Technical Services.  It’s useless to check the library catalog because the catalog doesn’t cover "databases", which is where the online journals are hidden.  It’s also useless to look up the journal in WorldCat because WorldCat incorrectly implies that the local library doesn’t have an online copy.  This is just a consequence of the fact that "databases" live in an alternate world to you and me.

If you were really familiar with our library’s "databases", you’d know that the library has something called an "Electronic Journal Finder".  It finds Library Resources & Technical Services journal in Gale’s Academic One File all right, but what it gives you is this URL:


Sometimes this horrible thing works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  The reason I’m getting this nonsense is that everything about Academic One File is wrapped in DRM.  As I said, this hurts users more than it slows down pirates.

You might have guessed that Academic One File has the journal anyway, except that the description of the "database" says:

Academic OneFile provides access to full-text articles from peer-reviewed English language journals from around the globe. Academic OneFile covers the physical sciences, technology, medicine, social sciences, the arts, theology, literature, and countless other subjects. Users can search both full text articles and abstracts. Click here for a list of available journal title.

This doesn’t give you much guidance about whether a library sciences journal would be covered, but look, you can click on the link to get a list of the journals that Academic One File covers.  Well, if you click on the link, it will take almost a minute to display the list of journals because it’s all on one page.  Not searchable, not indexed, on a single page.

But I’m not that organized.  I just checked Academic One File first because it’s the first "database" in the list.  If you’re already logged in to the catalog with your user-unfriendly bar code and PIN, you still have to log in again to Academic One File because of that alternate reality thing.  Once you’re logged in, the search interface is sort of clunky, because the default search doesn’t really handle names of journals.  In our reality, you could do a "Title Search", but here you switch to "Publication Search", and then you’ll find Library Resources & Technical Services, where you can click through to the April issue and the article I was looking for.

I wanted to download the article, and indeed the article has a download link.  I don’t know whether you ever have this feeling interacting with online services, but when I clicked the download link I knew it wasn’t going to work.  I just didn’t know how.

A short digression:  when you look at a single web page, that single page is normally made up of several different files, each of which has to be downloaded into your browser.  Some of the files are obvious, like the images on the page, and some are programming that affect the look of the page.  In order to keep all these files organized, it’s common for a web page to have a BASE tag, which indicates where to start looking for the files.  One alternative to using a BASE tag is to give the files on the page a complete web address (i.e., URL).

The article I wanted was downloaded as a web page.  When I opened it in my browser the text was the whole width of the page, which makes it very hard to read.  I took a look at the page’s HTML source using TextPad and the problem was obvious.  Some of the files the page needed weren’t referenced using a complete URL, and the page as a whole had no BASE tag.  This is a bug, but I figured perhaps I could hack around it by looking at the HTML of the online copy.

Well, the HTML source of the online version of the article was enlightening, but not exactly in the way I expected:  the files that define the style of the page (specifically the CSS files) are protected by the same DRM that is used to protect the content.  Let me say that again:  they’ve protected the file which specifies the width of the page using the same unhappy mechanism they use to protect their intellectual content.  Yuck!

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You might be Web 2.0 …

… if you use Twitter as effectively as the New England Patriots.  The Patriots set up a special Twitter account for the NFL draft, and during the draft they tweeted every few minutes with information about their picks and trades.

I’m interested in the NFL draft, but I’m not that interested. What I like about the twitter feed is that it gives quite a lot of information about what the Patriots are doing in an easy-to-digest form.  For me, it’s not too much, it’s just right.

What impresses me on a technical level is that it gives the Patriots another channel to their fans with a very small amount of effort.   It only takes a few seconds per tweet, but it gives Patriots fans an almost instantaneous view into the Patriots draft room. 

… OR if you have as many channels as the BBC’s coverage of the Indian election.  They have:

Yoicks, that’s a lot of content!

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Awesome UI prototype from U Michigan LIS students

This year, the School of Information at the University of Michigan held a Library 2.0 student design competition.  The winner was Team Awesome, and their entry really is awesome.

Of course the animation is neat, with blocks opening and closing or appearing and disappearing, but I particularly liked the way tag selection was handled.  Clicking on a tag selects and highlights it; clicking on it again deselects it and removes the highlighting, but doesn’t delete the tag from the page.  That makes it easy to quickly try different combinations of tags.  The same idea could be applied to search terms.

When I saw the way the student prototype handled tag selection, a light bulb went off in my head and I said to myself, "Yep, that’s the way it should work".

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Data quality in catalogs

OCLC just issued a report on "Online Catalogs:  What Users and Librarians Want".  One of the things it discusses is the idea of data quality.  The report as a whole, and data quality in particular, triggered a very interesting discussion on the Next Generation Catalogs for Libraries mailing list, which you can probably find here under the title of the report, "Online Catalogs:  What Users and Librarians Want".

I happen to have a particular view of quality from having hung out with ISO 9000 and TS 16949 people for a few years, but that’s not the topic of this post.  Interestingly, OCLC is ISO 9001 registered (i.e., compliant).

In my previous post, referring to Kalpa imperial : the greatest empire that never was, I said:

It’s a shame that only eight libraries in Massachusetts own the book,
and not any of the forty or so libraries in the library network I use.

That statement was based on the listing in WorldCat, but it turns out not to be true – the network has four copies – which raises the question of why the network’s holdings didn’t show up in WorldCat.

WorldCat’s control number, 52743026, is shown in the URL for its entry.  The library network will display its MARC record for the book, and you can see in the 001 field the same control number as WorldCat.  With a little bit of digging, I verified that the 003 field identifies the control number as belonging to OCLC.  So the records in the two databases have the same control number, or to put it in database terms, the same primary key.

If you wanted to improve data quality, getting these two databases in synch would be a good place to start.

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“Kalpa imperial : the greatest empire that never was”

Kalpa imperial : the greatest empire that never was by Angélica Gorodischer, translated by Ursula K Le Guin.

There’s some serious craft at work in these eleven short stories, both in their writing and their translation.  I’m not sure I’m qualified to say much more about the book than I loved and enjoyed every one of the stories, but what kind of review would that be?  And I can’t say anything about the translation, but Le Guin has produced smooth prose with a clear voice. I don’t suppose you expected anything less.

It’s not so unusual for a book to announce in its title that the story in the book isn’t real, whatever that means, but Gorodischer winds this knot tighter and tighter as the book goes along.  Some of the stories about the empire that never was are narrated by a storyteller.  We’re left to wonder whether this is a storyteller in the empire, or a storyteller sitting outside the empire but inside the book.  Some of the stories are about people pretending to be someone else, or changing their lives so much that they are, in effect, someone else. Some of the stories are about storytellers, or people who were storytellers for a time.  The storytellers that do appear aren’t always very cooperative.  More than once a storyteller tells his listeners (us, or the listeners in the book?) that he won’t bother to fill in some detail, or that if you want to know how the story ends you can look it up, or that anyway everyone knows what happened.

There’s plenty of apparent history in the book:  such and such an emperor is succeeded by his son, who is overthrown by his uncle, bringing the end to such and such a dynasty and the founding of another.  But these details are sprinkled throughout the book so finely that they may as well be pixie dust.  There’s not much indication one way or the other whether the stories are in chronological order.  Characters from one story rarely appear in another, and you have no way to construct a chronology of the empire.  Silly to try, really, since the empire never was.

The same is true of the geography of the empire.  The north of the empire is dry, and the south is wet.  Parts of the empire are flat and parts are mountainous.  Perhaps a more careful reader might be able to draw something like a map, but not a real map.

We’re meant to interpret some books as allegory.  The hardworking blacksmith who shoes the hero’s horse for nothing isn’t just a blacksmith, he’s Charity.  Something else is going on in Gorodischer’s stories.  She has so carefully and thoroughly drained the stories, the setting, the characters and the narrative of any claim to realism that they can scarcely be symbolic of anything.  But Gorodischer has performed a sleight of hand, and the stories are just as realistic as any story someone tells you.  She has both conquered the particular, and illuminated people’s need to make sense of the world through stories.

The book is fabulous.  It’s a shame that only eight libraries in Massachusetts own the book, and not any of the forty or so libraries in the library network I use.

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